Study: Guns Don't Make Bear Country Safer

This 1812 illustration depicts a grizzly bear treeing Hugh McNeal, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, in 1806. (Photo: Matthew Carey/U.S. Library of Congress)

The urge to carry a gun in bear country is understandable. But according to new research from Brigham Young University, guns rarely benefit people who encounter bears, and sometimes they even make things worse.

Led by BYU biologist and bear expert Tom S. Smith, the study examined 269 encounters between bears and armed humans from 1883 to 2009, all of them in Alaska. (It mainly focused on grizzly bears, but also included some run-ins with black and polar bears.) Smith and his co-authors found no statistical difference in the outcomes of using a gun versus not using a gun — most people survive bear encounters either way, and a lack of guns doesn't appear to increase the danger.

"It really isn't about the kind of gun you carry; it's about how you carry yourself," Smith tells MNN. "We have this fairly sophisticated statistical model, and the variables that are most predictive of an outcome didn't involve guns at all. If you go into bear country and don't adhere to common sense, then your next big mistake is to think you can shoot your way out of a problem with a gun."

The study doesn't downplay the risks, though, or suggest going into bear country defenseless. "No one should enter bear country without a deterrent, and these results show that firearms are not a clear choice," the authors write. "We encourage all persons, with or without a firearm, to consider carrying a nonlethal deterrent such as bear spray because its success rate under a variety of situations has been greater."

Bear spray may sound less effective than a gun, but it really does have better odds of success, Smith says. Bear spray produces a broad, stinging mist that usually makes bears stop or retreat, while a bullet is more all-or-nothing — a head shot might stop an attacking grizzly, for example, but anything else could just make it angrier. Plus, as Smith points out, bear spray is easier to use than a gun, and is typically easier to draw. "In many cases, guns are incapable of stopping the bears," he says. "But with bear spray there's no learning curve — it's easy to carry, easy to access and can be deployed in a split second, with the press of a button."

The 269 bear encounters Smith examined for his firearms study included 17 human deaths and 30 severe injuries, but a 2008 paper on bear spray included only three minor injuries, with the spray stopping aggressive bears 92 percent of the time. This supports previous findings by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which reports that, since 1992, "persons encountering grizzlies and defending themselves with firearms suffer injury about 50 percent of the time. During the same period, persons defending themselves with pepper spray escaped injury most of the time, and those that were injured experienced shorter duration attacks and less severe injuries."

People who bear arms among bears often don't achieve the desired results, especially in grizzly country. Smith's study documented some of the ways their plans go awry, including: a lack of time to respond to the bear (27 percent), jamming or other mechanical issues (14 percent), too close of proximity to the bear (9 percent), the shooter missed the bear (9 percent), the gun was empty and couldn't be reloaded in time (8 percent), the gun's safety was engaged and couldn't be unlocked in time (8 percent), the person tripped and fell while trying to shoot (3 percent), and the gun's discharge spurred the bear to charge, ending further use of the gun (1 percent).

"Also, this doesn't get talked about as much, but people are reluctant to kill bears," Smith adds. "When you're shooting something nonlethal, you can just fire and not worry about it. But people are reluctant to kill a mother with two cubs." Aside from empathy, he says, people may also factor in more practical reasons to hold their fire. "They know they'll be put on trial in the media — people don't tend to deal kindly with people who shoot bears." And most states require you to salvage the carcass if you kill a wild bear, which Smith describes as "a long, messy process."

Still, he acknowledges guns can be useful in life-or-death situations — if you know what you're doing. "Don't get me wrong, there's a place for guns, and guns have saved a number of people's lives," Smith says. "But when you look at why guns didn't work in a lot of cases, these are some of the reasons why." People often carry guns in holsters or over their shoulders, he explains, and aren't used to quickly aiming and firing under stress. "If you're really, really good with a gun, then it's probably a good thing. But I don't think a lot of people are really, really good with a gun."

The best advice for dealing with wild bears is to always have your deterrent ready, Smith emphasizes, and to not run away. "When you stand your ground, you're conveying to that animal that you're not submissive, that you could be a threat. If you start backing up, that emboldens them," he says. "Generally, the No. 1 thing is to ready your deterrent, stand your ground, and then when it crosses an imaginary line, you deploy." But, he adds, it's OK to flee after you've incapacitated the bear: "Once the bear spray is deployed, you should get out of the area."

The advantages of bear spray over guns are well-documented, but they're not absolute. "Don't put down your gun to get your spray — I'd shoot the bear," says Smith, a gun owner himself. "But typically people have more time to deploy the spray, and why not use a nonlethal option? Why kill the bear if you don't have to?"

For more advice, check out this guide on how to survive a bear attack.